Israelis on Friday got a fuller dose of rank-and-file angst over their army’s winter assault on the Gaza Strip, as newspapers elaborated on allegations that commanders created a permissive attitude toward the killing of civilians.
Soldiers’ accounts of two killings of women and children appeared Thursday in Haaretz and Maariv. Both papers followed up Friday with lengthy excerpts of the soldiers’ comments about confusion and doubt over the rules of engagement during the 22-day offensive, which left an estimated 1,400 Palestinians dead.
The accounts came from a Feb. 13 discussion at a military preparatory academy. The school’s director, Danny Zamir, who led the discussion, disclosed the transcript this week. Here are recollections of Aviv, a squad commander in the elite Givati Brigade, other Givati soldiers and an air force pilot. The transcript didn’t use their full names.
AVIV: Toward the end of the operation, there was a plan to go into a very densely populated area inside Gaza City. In the briefings, they started to talk about orders for opening fire inside the city, because as you know they used a huge amount of firepower and killed a huge number of people along the way, so that we wouldn’t get hurt and [Hamas militants] wouldn’t fire on us.
At first the specified action was to go into a house . . . with an armored personnel carrier . . . and start shooting inside. . . . I call this murder. . . . We were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified, we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself, “Where is the logic?”
They said it was permissible because anyone who remained in the sector was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn’t fled. I didn’t really understand. . . . They don’t have anywhere to flee to. . . . This scared me a bit.
I tried to exert some influence, insofar as is possible [in] my subordinate position, to change this. In the end the specification involved going into a house, operating megaphones and telling [the occupants], “Come on, everyone get out. You have five minutes. Leave the house. Anyone who doesn’t get out gets killed.”
I went to our soldiers and said, “The order has changed. We go into the house, they have five minutes to escape, we check each person who goes out . . . to see that he has no weapons, and then we start going into the house floor by floor to clean it out. . . . This means going into the house, opening fire at everything that moves, throwing a grenade, all those things.”
One of my soldiers came to me and asked, “Why?” I said, “What isn’t clear? We don’t want to kill innocent civilians.” He goes, “Yeah? Anyone who’s in there is a terrorist, that’s a known fact.” I said, “Do you think the people there will run away? No one will run away.” He says, “That’s clear,” and then his buddies join in, “We need to murder any person who’s in there. Yeah, any person who’s in Gaza is a terrorist,” and all the other things that they stuff our heads with, in the media.
And then I try to explain to the guy that not everyone in there is a terrorist, and that after he kills, say, three children and four mothers, we’ll go upstairs and kill another 20 or so people. . . . I tried to explain why we had to let them leave. . . . It didn’t really help. This is really frustrating, to see that they understand that inside Gaza you are allowed to do anything you want, to break down doors for no other reason than it’s cool.
Aviv then described how a sharpshooter killed an elderly woman who had come within 100 yards of a commandeered house.
ZAMIR: I don’t understand. Why did he shoot her?
AVIV: That’s what is so nice, supposedly, about Gaza: You see a person on a road. . . . He doesn’t have to be with a weapon . . . and you can just shoot him. With us it was an old woman, on whom I didn’t see any weapon. The order was to take that person out, that woman, the moment you see her.
ZVI: Aviv’s descriptions are accurate, but it’s possible to understand where this is coming from. And that woman . . . she wasn’t supposed to be there, because there were announcements and there were bombings. Logic says she shouldn’t be there. The way you describe it, as murder in cold blood, that isn’t right. It’s known they have lookouts.
GILAD: Even before we went in, the battalion commander made it clear to everyone that a very important lesson from the second Lebanon war was the way the [army] goes in: with a lot of fire. The intention was to protect soldiers’ lives by means of firepower. In the operation, the [army’s] losses really were light and the price was that a lot of Palestinians got killed.
Ram, who serves in a Givati Brigade operations company, described a sniper’s killing of a woman and her two children as they walked near a no-go area by mistake.
ZAMIR: After a killing like that, do they do some sort of investigation in the [army]?
MOSHE: The attitude is very simple: It isn’t pleasant to say so, but no one cares at all. We aren’t investigating this. This is what happens during fighting and this is what happens during routine security.
ZAMIR: Among the pilots, is there talk or thoughts of remorse? For example, I was terribly surprised by the enthusiasm surrounding the killing of the Gaza traffic police on the first day of the operation. They took out 180 traffic cops. As a pilot, I would have questioned that.
GIDEON: Tactically speaking, you call them “police.” In any case, they are armed and belong to Hamas.